The long overdue announcement that there was to be a parting of the ways between the Mail and Katie Hopkins sent a small frisson of excitement through her many detractors. Sure the decision was prompted by the money she was costing the newspaper in libel fees rather than any sudden pang of conscience, but even so, the woman who once compared African migrants to cockroaches was finally getting her comeuppance.
Having lost her weekly show on LBC and been forced by protesters to cancel a recent appearance at the Lewes Speakers Festival, it felt as if the tide was turning against purveyors of hate; from now on, right-wing extremists and attention-seeking narcissists would return to howling at the moon.
Better still, perhaps it would signal a return to the days when you couldn’t justify spouting demonstrable falsehoods (such as Hopkins’ claim that the crash outside London’s Natural History Museum was a terrorist attack) on the grounds that they were “her opinion” or that – while inaccurate – they held some greater truth.
Alas, it was not to be; less than a week later an unhinged Donald Trump – who once praised Hopkins for claiming parts of London were so radicalised people were afraid to go there – had turned his attention to another member of the lunatic fringe: Jayda Fransen, the deputy leader of Britain First.
The president endorsed Fransen’s Islamophobia by re-tweeting three inflammatory videos from her account. All of them purported to show Muslims committing nefarious acts; all three were either misleading – a youth shown attacking a Dutch teenager was not, as she claimed, a migrant – or unverified.
But Trump, who recently accused CNN of fake news, allowing the Libyan media to throw doubt on its report that modern-day slave auctions were being held in the country, was not interested in the tweets’ provenance or their accuracy. He cared only that they served his wider agenda: to foster fear and hate within the UK.
Before last week, the number of people outside the political bubble who knew Fransen’s name was probably quite small. Although the group hit the headlines when terrorist Thomas Mair repeatedly shouted its name while murdering MP Jo Cox, it has a minuscule membership and is an electoral nonentity. When Fransen stood in the Rochester and Strood parliamentary seat in a 2014 by-election, she polled just 56 votes (0.1 per cent).
Yet, by re-tweeting her posts to his 43.8 million followers, Trump boosted her profile and lent legitimacy to her claim that the charges of religiously aggravated harassment she faces are a form of persecution.
So how did the British establishment react to the leader of the free world’s attempt to sow hostility and division? Well, superficially at least, politicians appeared to unite in opposition to his actions. Theresa May who, less than a year ago, was on hand-holding terms with the president, said he had been “wrong” to post the videos, Jeremy Corbyn called them “a threat to our society” and Piers Morgan said this was the worst thing he had done since taking office. Such was the apparent consensus that Cox’s widower Brendan thanked Trump for reminding us that we have “#moreincommon and no time for hatred.”
But was the reaction really as vociferous as it should have been? If re-tweeting Britain First was too much even for InfoWars editor Joseph Paul Watson, who described it as “not great optics”, then surely the mainstream protest should have been more forceful.
May’s statement was robust enough to provoke a stroppy response from Trump and cause a minor diplomatic stooshie, but “wrong” is still a weak word for something that has the power to incite violence; and despite her lukewarm condemnation, she neither distanced herself from the “special relationship” nor rescinded the offer of a state visit. All of which raises the question: what would the racist, predatory rabble-rouser have to do before we told him he wasn’t welcome?
More worrying than the Prime Minister’s reaction has been that of media outlets – such as LBC, Vice and the BBC – who went on to interview either Fransen or right-wing US commentator Ann Coulter (via whose Twitter account Trump probably stumbled on the videos).
Their excuses ranged from the need to provide “balance” to the old saw: “Give them enough rope and they will hang themselves”; but we all know that’s not how it works. Hopkins was proof of that. Nowadays, there is no opinion so offensive, no world view so odious that it will not thrive on the oxygen of publicity some platforms seem so eager to supply.
To understand how much the UK has changed, you only have to reflect on the soul-searching that surrounded the appearance of BNP leader Nick Griffin on Question Time in 2009. Back then, the BNP had polled 943,598 votes and won two seats in the European Parliamentary Elections, so there was some weight in the argument that his views should be heard.
On the night, crowds of protesters turned up at the studios, but the programme went ahead. Griffin was held to account by fellow panellists, the studio audience and TV viewers, and the BBC’s decision was largely vindicated.
Yet perhaps, even then, the producers’ rhetoric – about freedom of speech and the BNP’s right to be challenged – were disingenuous; perhaps all Question Time was ever interested in was boosting the viewing figures (the programme was watched by 8 million people, the highest number in its 30-year history).
With hindsight, it certainly seems to have been a watershed moment. Before long the programme was offering Nigel Farage a regular platform from which to promote his anti-immigrant views, thus heightening his profile and bolstering the fortunes of Ukip. Even now Farage has gone and Ukip is a spent force, their new leader, Henry Bolton, who believes the UK is being “buried” by Islam, is given a seat at the table.
Meanwhile, the capacity or will of broadcasters to scrutinise and call out misleading or malicious views appears to have diminished, as evidenced by the failure to challenge the claims that Brexit would mean £350m a week for the NHS. It no longer seems to matter what people stand for or what they say, only how provocative they are prepared to be and how much of a backlash they are likely to provoke. This emphasis on clicks over content has driven the rise of the alt-right and made heroes, then zeros, of such empty vessels as Milo Yiannopoulos.
When the Muslim-baiting views of someone like Fransen are given currency by a world leader, however, it’s not merely offensive, it’s frightening and we should respond commensurately: not by giving Trump a slap on the wrist and Fransen a public platform on which to expose her own idiocy; but by dissociating ourselves completely from the presidency and treating Fransen like the pariah she is.